Not even Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino realised the scale of what Dele Alli has already achieved ahead of his 21st birthday on Tuesday.
“Wow. That’s unbelievable, no?” was Pochettino’s response when told that Alli has more Premier League goals and assists than Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes and Cristiano Ronaldo before the age of 21.
In fact, Alli’s combined total of 40 means he has had a hand in as many Premier League goals before turning 21 as Lampard (15), Gerrard (13) and David Beckham (12) combined.
“He’s special,” said Pochettino. “He’s a bit different to all the players that play now at his age. He’s so experienced. His energy, his character, his quality. I think he is a unique player. He’s different to another, it’s so difficult to compare to another.”
Alli’s goal in the victory over Watford was his 16th in the Premier League this season and the former MK Dons youngster has been the most productive player, in terms of goals and assists, aged under 21 in Europe’s top five leagues.
Asked if Alli is the best young player in Europe, Pochettino replied: “I think today, his age and with his stats, I think so. If not he’s the best, he’s one of the best for sure.
“He’s a great. First of all a great kid, I think he’s a lovely, lovely person. And then he is a great player. And then, he is so young he can improve a lot, he can learn a lot, his potential is massive. But every day he’s improving, and every day he gets more mature. He’s improving in his skills, but in his character as well.”
Alli’s character has come under scrutiny at times over the past two seasons, when he was retrospectively banned for punching Claudio Yacob and sent-off in the Europa League against Gent in February.
Pochettino, whose relationship with Alli is almost like father and son, believes his forgiving approach over the midfielder’s mistakes is vindicated by his phenomenal progression.
“It’s true, yes my relationship is good with him,” said Pochettino. “He is a really, really lovely person and that makes us very happy because he’s enjoying his football.
“I remember after a game many people criticised me, killed me, killed him and time has shown we are right to support him. To give love, because he is so young.
“And this character is perfect for a player. When you are winning and you feel that to lose on the pitch is like losing your life, that is all we want in a player. And then of course he is young and he needs to improve, but he needs love. To improve, it’s not about to punch him or to punish him.
“I am so happy for him because, yes, I always knew the relationship from day one was tough. Was friendly, lovely, but tough too because it’s like when you have your son, you love him, but sometimes you have to be tough.”
In case he is interested, from Tuesday Alli will be able to supervise a learner driver, apply for a range of licences to fly aeroplanes, helicopters, gyroplanes and airships, and drive lorries, buses and road rollers.
Alli and his Tottenham team-mates drove a bus through the Watford defence in a game in which Harry Kane made his early return from an ankle injury as a substitute.
The first goal came courtesy of Alli, who curled a superb shot into the top corner of the net, before Eric Dier added a second with a well-struck volley.
Heung-Min Son grabbed the third and fourth goals either side of half-time, but squandered a wonderful chance to complete his hat-trick by missing the target after being set-up by Kane.
Watford manager Walter Mazzarri started with Troy Deeney on the substitutes’ bench and the striker turned down interview requests after the game by warning: “I might say something I regret.”
Asked if he was aware Deeney was unhappy, Mazzarri said: “Of course all the players that do not start, they are not happy. I think (Stefano) Okaka was the same when Deeney started against West Bromwich. These are my decisions and, of course, the players need to respect these decisions and when they go on to the pitch give everything they’ve got.
“It was a simple physical condition decision. Okaka played against Sunderland while Tory was out, then Deeney played against West Bromwich and Okaka was out. This time I thought Okaka had more energy to start the game. So it was a simple physical condition decision.”